Are Interns Exploited?

A Guardian blogger is outraged at what she sees as exploitation of interns at charities in the U.K. She doesn’t think interns are volunteers; she thinks they should be paid. She asks Should major charities offer unpaid internships?, and has a poll on the subject as well.

The Guardian blogger is outraged first because “These are not just tea-making, post-sorting roles – they are proper jobs with real responsibility.” Um… yes, volunteers are capable of roles that come with real responsibility. In fact, volunteers are capable of leading paid staff in projects. Many organizations actually reserve roles with “real responsibility” specifically for volunteers rather than paid employees, for reasons that have NOTHING to do with money. Is the outrage that these volunteers are – gasp – university graduates?! Sorry, but I don’t at all buy that argument against volunteers/unpaid interns.

The other argument I can more agree with: by requiring interns to work full time, and to make a three, six, even 12-month commitment, companies involving these volunteers are excluding otherwise capable people of these internships, because these people cannot afford them. Any time a volunteer engagement program excludes various people only because of the lack-of-financial resources of these people, the organization is losing out on talent, and people are being denied a valuable, even essential, experience.

And I have a big problem with this from the article: when the Guardian blogger interviewed charities involving interns in longer-term commitments, “they all stressed that their ability to continue to carry out their important work relied heavily on the contributions of their valued volunteers.” That means: we involve unpaid staff because we can’t afford to pay people. We wouldn’t involve volunteers if we could afford to pay staff for these activities.

As I blogged about yesterday, I am firmly in the big tent regarding who is a volunteer: pro bono consultants, executives on loan, court-ordered community service people, online super fans, online community members, and, yes, even interns: they are all volunteers. If my organization is not paying you, and you are providing time and talent to the organization in any way, you are a volunteer. If you want to call yourself an intern, that’s fine, so long as your experience is seen by us both as primarily a learning experience for you.

A much better question: why does an organization involve volunteers, including interns? If it’s the reasons the Guardian blogger heard then, indeed, these charities need to have their employees packed off to some volunteer management trainings immediately, because they are living in the dark ages regarding volunteer engagement. Just as some jobs are best done by paid employees, some nonprofit/NGO/charity jobs are best done by unpaid staff! Certain positions should be reserved specifically for volunteers.

As I’ve blogged about before: the majority of programming by the Girl Scouts of the USA is delivered by volunteers, not because volunteers save money, but because volunteers are the best people to deliver the Girl Scouts leadership programs for girls. Even going all-volunteer can be the right thing to do for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with money saved: It’s been true for the Pine Creek Information Center, it’s been true for the Aid Workers Network, and it’s true of lots of other organizations. In fact, I question the credibility of nonprofit organizations, NGOs, charities and even government agencies focused on services to the public, like schools and state parks, that do not involve volunteers in a variety of ways, including in decision-making and high-responsibility roles.

Now, with all that said: yes, there are many nonprofits, NGOs, charities and others that exploit interns (and other volunteers, for that matter), by treating them merely as free labor. Once upon a time, at an employer I won’t name, I raised a fuss about how I felt some staff were treating interns (merely as free labor). We ended up creating a mission statement for involving interns:

Such-and-such organization is commited to helping to cultivate new professionals in the field of name-of-field-redacted. Therefore, we reserve certain tasks and roles for interns, to provide career-development experiences to emerging professionals.

We also created written guidelines about:

  • what tasks could and should be reserved for interns
  • written role descriptions for interns, shared with other staff (including the HR department)
  • what training an employee that wanted to involve volunteers would have to commit to provide his or her interns
  • what experiences an employee would have to commit to providing interns (what staff meetings and site visits they should attend, a project for the intern to lead, etc.)
  • creating a performance plan and learning plan for interns at the start of the internship, and then evaluating activities based on this plan at least midway and at the end of the internship, in writing
  • how the intern will evaluate his or her own experience, including the support and supervision he or she received (or didn’t!)
  • a six-month cap on all internships (no person could serve in an unpaid internship past six months)
  • how the employee should represent his or her involvement of volunteers, including interns, in his or her own performance plan

Such guidelines for involving interns make the internship focused primarily on being a learning experience rather than a getting-work-done experience. It raises the bar on justifiying the involvement of interns, reducing the risk that interns will be exploited. It also raised the bar on who could be an intern; it meant internships were reserved for emerging professionals in a particular field.

Why not do this for ALL volunteer roles? Because not every volunteer wants to be an intern or wants this kind of learning experience – a lot of volunteers would balk at the idea of creating a learning plan, having a six-month cap on their service, etc. Talking to all volunteers about what they want out of their experience is always mandatory. 

Oh, and for the record: yes, I did an unpaid internship right after I graduated from my university, a million years ago. It was for three months. And I had to pay for my own housing and travel to the site for the summer. Was it worth it? Totally, in that it lead to paid work at another nonprofit two months after the internship ended, gave me skills I use to this day, and put me in the pathway of people who are my friends even all these years later. But my supervisor was awful, and delighted in watching me work 14 hour days while she went out to dinner; her horrible treatment inspired me to treat interns — and all volunteers — far, far differently than her, and remains in the back of my mind whenever I speak, write or train on the subject of volunteer engagement.

Also see:

Another anti-volunteer union; includes a review of the value of volunteers

Volunteers are suing!

Volunteers – still not free! Even at Wikipedia!

Government support re: volunteerism increasing worldwide (but not their financial support)

Going all-volunteer in dire economic times: use with caution.

Tags: volunteer, volunteers, internships, interns, community, engagement, young, professionals

2 thoughts on “Are Interns Exploited?

  1. RobJConsulting

    Hi Jayne.I disagree with your observation that because organisations said "they all stressed that their ability to continue to carry out their important work relied heavily on the contributions of their valued volunteers" then that means: we involve unpaid staff because we can’t afford to pay people. We wouldn’t involve volunteers if we could afford to pay staff for these activities.Sadly it sometimes does. But it can also mean that they are an all-volunteer effort. Or that the skills, abilities and unique contributions volunteers bring are essential to the fulfilment of their mission.

  2. Anonymous

    "the skills, abilities and unique contributions volunteers bring are essential to the fulfilment of their mission." Unfortunately, this is NOT what Oxfam and other organizations have said is the reason they involve interns/volunteers. I think this is the kind of statement (which is excellent, BTW) that is fundamental to a justification for involving volunteers. But that’s not what these agencies are saying – they are repeating again and again statements that relate to saving money. Indeed, many organizations start off as all-volunteer because they haven’t raised enough money to pay any staff. But, as I’ve blogged about before, they need to be very careful in that transition from going all-volunteer to some/all paid – and, in fact, there are advantages to staying all-volunteer that go WAY beyond money saved… but that’s another blog…As always, thanks for reading AND commenting. Very much appreciated.


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